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Canada’s Alien Tort Statute

Published on March 29, 2012        Author: 

Professor René Provost, Faculty of Law and Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, McGill University

A few days ago, Canada moved to follow the Alien Tort Statute model found in the United States and open the door to file suits in damages against foreign states and others linked to acts of terrorism. The new law provides for both a basis of jurisdiction of Canadian courts and removes the immunity of foreign states in certain circumstances (see also Joanna Harrington’s post).

Bill C-10, an Omnibus criminal law statute, was adopted by the Canadian Parliament last week. The bill generated intense political debate and media attention, but largely for another section which imposed mandatory minimum sentences for a series of criminal acts. The scope of the Bill is well illustrated by its full title: “An Act to enact the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act and to amend the State Immunity Act, the Criminal Code, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and other Acts”. One of the nine distinct sections of the bill which attracted considerably less attention in the mainstream media – and indeed in Parliament itself – is the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act The law brings Canada into the very small group of states in which it is possible to use domestic courts to seek redress for violations of international law. It is noteworthy that the Act is limited to responsibility for acts of terrorism, and does not cover other violations of international law such as torture and war crimes, despite some earlier calls for a wider ambit.

The first part of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act creates a cause of action in Canada for damage or loss which occurred anywhere in relation to a terrorist act, if certain conditions are met. If the plaintiff is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, no further territorial link is required. The Act opens the door to a suit in damages even for plaintiffs who do not have a nationality or residency link to Canada if there is a “real and substantial connection” to the country. This refers to the standard adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Libman v. The Queen, [1985] 2 SCR 178 to establish a territorial basis for criminal prosecution, which was later relied upon in other areas as well. The connection demanded in order to satisfy the “real and substantial” test has been interpreted quite broadly, to include not only any phase of the crime but also its repercussions. As such, the door which is opened by the Act is overall quite broad. Read the rest of this entry…